When Joey Peters arrived on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) campus in 2012, he was a competitive gymnast with aspirations of participating in the 2020 Olympic Games. Today, he’s a first-year student doctor at Kansas City University (KCU), a testament to his tenacity, resilience and adaptability.
Peters began his college career studying kinesiology and exercise science at UIUC on a full gymnastics scholarship. Within the first month, he earned the title of Big Ten Freshman of the Week, and by the end of the season, he was an NCAA All-American in the all-around. His junior year saw him setting career bests in the floor, rings, vault and all-around. His red-shirt senior year, he was a nominee for the Nissen-Emory Award (Heisman-trophy equivalent for NCAA gymnastics).
But his achievements weren’t limited to the gym. Peters was also an academic star, earning the title of College Gymnastics Association First Team All-American Scholar-Athlete and Academic All-Big Ten.
Peters was preparing for his senior year when an accident on the high bar altered his athletic path. Following multiple surgeries and a year away from gymnastics, he found himself shifting his focus from competitive gymnastics to academic pursuits – specifically, clinical research in kinesiology.
From Gymnast to Researcher
In 2016, Peters started working as a graduate research assistant in the wheelchair biomechanics and performance laboratory at UIUC, where he earned his PhD in 2022 in exercise physiology and biomechanics. There, he worked with Dr. Ian Rice, lab PI, and Adam Bleakney, the head coach of the UIUC wheelchair track and road racing team. Both Dr. Rice and Adam Bleakney were former Paralympians.
Inspired by Bleakney’s work and eager to apply his knowledge of sports science, Peters began volunteering with the wheelchair track team, eventually earning a position as a graduate assistant coach in 2017.
Fulfilling the Coaching Journey
Peters’ dedication to coaching was underscored by his constant commitment to his athletes. The rigorous travel schedule that came with his role was demanding, but Peters was unwavering. He accompanied Team USA to Tokyo in 2020 amidst challenging COVID-19 protocols, where his athletes won 11 Paralympic medals. His coaching journey reached its finale at the 2023 World Championships held in Paris. In a heartfelt gesture, one of his athletes, Susannah Scaroni, conferred upon him her bronze medal from the Women’s 5000-meter race. This touching action stood as a testament to the deep respect and admiration Peters held among his athletes.
Finding a New Path
Despite his achievements, Peters found himself at a crossroads. While serving as a visiting scholar at UIUC, he realized that a career in research wasn’t for him. He encountered limitations within the realm of clinical research that prompted a reevaluation of his career path. His work often involved conducting interventions with patients dealing with conditions such as spinal cord injuries (SCI), multiple sclerosis (MS), or cerebral palsy (CP), all of which often came with additional complications. There were issues beyond his scope of study that left him desiring a more holistic approach to patient care.
During this period of reflection, while working on his PhD dissertation, Peters reached out to Dr. Max Mayr, a recent graduate of KCU and a trusted friend. Peters expressed his concerns about academia and his potential desire for a career pivot. Mayr encouraged him to begin studying for the MCAT and to apply to medical school. Mayr told him to apply to KCU “as it is one of the top schools in the country, and very supportive of non-traditional students.”
The Journey Ahead
Joey Peters is now a first-year student at KCU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. He brings the same intensity and dedication from his athletic career and research to his medical studies. His journey is marked by resilience and adaptability. His journey is just beginning.